Alice in the Big Apple

IMG_1050If you’re a fan of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, you’ve got a lot to celebrate on this 150th anniversary of its publication. The Lewis Carroll Society of North Americas has organized a series of events (lots for kids)   not only in NYC, but other parts of the US and in the UK over the next few months.  I caught two exhibits that I’d like to tell you about.

Start at the Morgan Library, where their “150 Years of Wonderland” exhibit serves as a kind of tasting menu, peppered with interesting tidbits about the origins and history of this seminal work. It seems that Charles Dodgson – who we better know as Lewis Carroll – got his start storytelling early on, as he was the oldest of 10 children, in an age when there was no TV, movies, video games…  He was also an accomplished photographer, no mean feat when taking a photograph meant putting a wet glass plate into the camera, having your subject stay still, then removing the plate before the chemicals dried…

You’ll find several photos Carroll took of Alice Liddell, the girl for whom he wrote “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” It took Carroll three years to write and illustrate a tale he told Alice and her sisters on a boat ride on July 4, 1862.   You’ll also see the handwritten version Carroll first gave to Alice, with his illustrations , which he titled “Alice’s Adventures Under Ground” (this is usually in the British Library and rarely travels).  The exhibit has a digital version where you can “leaf” through the pages.  Though he was a competent draftsman, we are lucky that Carroll was able to have John Tenniel illustrate the final version, and there are several lovely hand-colored proofs as well as watercolors and gouaches over pen & ink.  By an illustration with the Cheshire Cat, is an explanatory label speculating that this character may have been inspired by a cheese in the shape of a grinning cat that was sliced starting at the tail end…

Interestingly enough, Tenniel didn’t like the quality of the first edition, so the publisher sent it to the US for sale here, as America was seen as a secondary market!  One of these “suppressed” editions, of which about 30 survive, is in the exhibit.

There’s also a very short sepia film from 1903 in which several scenes from “Alice in Wonderland” are enacted with costumes and sets based on the Tenniel drawings. 

I took a docent-led tour, and would recommend it.   For more information about the Morgan Library exhibit, which ends October 11th,  go to their website

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland in Maltese

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in Maltese

Further uptown, the Grolier Club has a great exhibit, “The Translations of Lewis Carroll’s Masterpiece” – into176 languages – including the Scouse dialect of Liverpool, Braille, Lao, Maylay, and 6 Celtic languages, not to mention some extinct languages like Gothic.  The show starts with background on Carroll’s life – he was a mathematician, teacher, photographer and letter writer. The main features are the translations which are grouped geographically.   It’s interesting as you go from language to language to see not only how Alice’s name changes but also the different illustrations on the book jackets. 

Edition in Pitjantjatjara, an aboriginal language of Australia

Edition in Pitjantjatjara, an aboriginal language of Australia

Translation is an art, and under the best circumstances with a straightforward text, it is still not easy to render words from one language into another.  A work such as Alice in Wonderland is especially challenging, as it contains invented words, rhymes, nonsense, and specific cultural references.  One of the debates among translators is whether a translation should reflect the culture of the original language, or the culture of the language into which the work is being translated, and you can peek into this discussion in the New Republic article by Vladimir Nabokov (who translated “Alice” into Russian), on “The Sins of Translations” as well as Umberto Eco’s book, “Experiences in Translation”.

Alice statue in Central Park

Alice statue in Central Park

The exhibit continues through November 21st.  There will also be a 2-day conference in October.   You can find more information here 

And, if you’re in Central Park, stop by the east side at 75th Street  where you’ll see her bronze likeness holding court with the Mad Hatter, the White Rabbit and a dormouse.

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